Sanchi is a perfect site, located nearly 70 kilometers from Bhopal (capital of Madhya Pradesh) amidst beautiful natural surroundings, far from the madding crowd, with well-preserved monuments and exquisite sculptures that are two thousand years old. No photograph seems able to capture the splendour of this rural landscape. Quite unexpectedly a round hill, an earth mound, protrudes gently above the plains, like a natural stupa on which an ancient Buddhist community built their venerated religious building. There are structures and sculptures here that date from the third century BC to seventh century AD, confirming that Sanchi flourished as a center of pilgrimage and as a monastic home for several hundred Buddhist for almost a thousands years.
It is not known why this site was chosen as a religious center. It is not connected directly with the life of the Buddha in any way. The reason Sanchi remained active for more than ten centuries may have been because it was situated near Vidisha (a thriving town seven kilometer away, and Sanchi's ancient name was Vidishagiri, the hill of Vidisha).
It was a strategic trade center beside the confluence of the Bees and Betwa rivers. We are told that rich merchants and patrons from Vidisha sustained the religious life and building activity at Sanchi. Buddhism appealed to the mercantile classes because it was way of life that was not hindered by caste restrictions and gave to every one the respectability, which comes with wealth and social mobility. For the Buddhist monks the location was most convenient. They could reside in the peaceful sanctuary of Sanchi (also called Chaitya-giri, the hill of Chaitya prayer halls) and walk to Vidisha (according to their prescribed custom) to beg for alms and their daily food. We are also told that it was to Vidisha that the Mauryan Emperor Ashok's wife belonged and that he had wished to honour the area by establishing an important Buddhist center. It was her son, Mahindra, who led the royal embassy to the island of Sri Lanka and carried the message of the Buddha there.
This Sanchi hillock is mere 91 meters high, no more than a swelling on the earth's surface. At the base is an entrance gate, a ticket counter, and an Archaeological Museum (that houses sculptures and artifacts excavated at the site, including a wonderful lion capital of the Mauryan period and beautiful images of the Buddha of the Mahayana period), which can be best appreciated after seeing the site. A road has been built to the summit where most of the monuments stand; there are later buildings, principally monasteries, on the eastern and southern sides. Stupa No 2 is to the west and Sanchi village lie to the north-east on the road to Vidisha.
At the summit of the hillock is a large enclosed area that contains several ruined and excavated structures, but most dramatic is the hemispherical mound (16.46 meters high and 36.6 meters in diameter) of Stupa No. 1. This stupa is completely solid, with a smaller, older brick structure enclosed within (constructed at the orders of Emperor Askok, who converted to Buddhism). Over this ancient brick formation (belonging to the second to third century BC) an outer layer was added, faced entirely with stone. Right on top is the harmika of the stupa, the stone-tiered umbrella is protected, as a sacred sign, with a square railing from which spreads the immense expanding from of the stupa body or anda (referring to the egg, the promise of life).
At the lower level is another railing, an elevated pradakshina patha or circumambulatory passage, which is approached by a flight of stairs. At ground layer is a similar high stone railing (3.2 meters) that encircles the stupa, with lozenge-like horizontal bars that fit into the pillar sockets of the upright posts. If one looks closely at the railing one cannot but marvel at the labor involved in making a rather simple wooden railing design out of stone.
A number of inscriptions appear engraved on such railing posts which register gifts made by patrons and suggest that such widespread artistic activity was sponsored by a variety of patrons rather than by a single donor.
Facing the four cardinal directions, encompassing all humankinds within the radius of Buddha's philosophy, are four gateways. These torans are the unchallenged, unsurpassed artistic achievement of Buddhist art at Sanchi. The gateway is staggered like a cattle gate, and consists of two upright pillars (8.5 meters high). Above and across the pillars are three separate horizontal, slightly bowed beams all minutely carved on the front and reverse sides. The crowning emblems of the toran are symbols of the ceaseless motion of the wheel of dharma, the law of life. The pillars of the gateway are divided into smaller panels, each carrying a story relating to the life of Buddha, while the horizontal beams have longer depictions of well-known Buddhist tales.
The north gateway depicts several scenes of the Buddha teaching: at Sravasti, in a grove, at Kapilavastu, and so on. Since much of the work at Sanchi was done during the height of the Hinayana period, many of the sculptured panels do not actually show the Buddha in human form but refer to his divine presence with symbols like the umbrella, the empty throne, and the Bodhi Tree. There are four elephants with swaying trunks and robust figures, which hold up the beams of the toran. Besides the elephant are two backets figures, the most sensuous depictions of salabhanjikas or yakshis, sacred tree spirits. John Marshall, who was responsible for the conservation of Sanchi in 1912, says of these lovely forms:
Holding with both hands to the arching bough of a mango tree, the shalabhanjikas curves the woodbine of her body in an attitude which brings out her breasts like urns of gold.
These figures bend with natural grace and their curvaceous forms bedecked with jewels reiterate the symbols of abundance and fertility. The architraves or horizontal beams also tell suggestive stories. The lower panel (back and front) expound a Jataka tale about a generous prince called Vessantara who never refused anyone who asked for a gift. Having given away the state elephant who was believed to bring rain, he and his family were banished from the palace. On the lower front beam panel of the northern gateway one can see the scene of the giving of the elephant and the magnanimous prince being forced to leave the palace. On the reverse side (seen best from the railing at the first level) the story unfolds, with the royal family living a humble life in the forest when a crafty man asks Vassantara for his children and he gives them away as well. Having passed this ultimate test of pure, selfless generosity, the prince receives his family and kingdom back again.
On the west gateway there is another very charming Jataka tale about Mahakapi, a kind and compassionate monkey, a previous incarnation of the Buddha. This monkey lived in the forest amongst his friends and relatives. One day prince out hunting spotted the monkeys frolicking amidst the branches. The Buddha, to help his family escape from the arrows of the hunter, swung himself across the river clasping the branches of trees and formed a live bridge. His companions were all able to flee but one jealous monkey jumped so hard that he broke the Buddha's back. The brave and altruistic monkey collapsed, but the sequence of events had been witnessed by the princely hunter who came to his aid. The scene shows the monkey bridge, the fleeing monkeys, the hunter seated beside the Buddha listening to his teaching and his philosophy of life.
These panels with shallow carved friezes are full of vitality and playful energy. Sanchi encapsulates an early phase of Buddhism on Indian soil and the sculptures found here bear the stamp of a beguiling innocence and charm.
To the north-east of Stupa No.1 is another smaller one numbered Stupa No.3, built around the second to first century BC, which has only one gateway. The sculptures here are more naïve with delightful medallions of elephants bathing and peacocks with fanned tails performing their mating dance. This stupa has a special the earthly remains of Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, two loyal disciples of the Buddha who predeceased their master. It is the sage Sariputra who is connected with the great Buddhist university site of Nalanda (Bihar, India).
There are several other types of structures and ruins at Sanchi. The monasteries on the east side follow a regular plan with a central courtyard surrounded by a continuous pillared verandah, behind which area a line of monastic cells. The most impressive example is the ruined Monastery No.51 on the lower western terrace of the hill.
To the south of Stupa No.1 is an interesting structure, Temple No.17, belonging to the fifth century, the Gupta period. This small building is accredited as being the first representative Hindu temple to have been built in stone. It is a flat roofed, one roomed structure, which has a small porch with carved pillars leading into the sanctum where the idol would have been kept. From the humble form of Temple No.17, the Hindu temple design grew in size with the addition of a number of rooms. Its flat roof was replaced in later centuries with towering shikharas of grand dimensions.
• What's in the neighbourhood
Near Sanchi (6 kilometer west of Vidisha) is Udaigiri with fifth century rock-cut caves carved in to the hill side. This series of rock-cut monuments of the Gupta period have some very interesting sculptured panels, which foreshadow the dramatic carving of Ellora and Elephanta in subsequent centuries. Cave No.5 has on its back wall a huge image of Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu who rescued the earth from primordial floods. Here the massive (4 meters high) sculpture depicts the august form of the Varaha standing at ease (for the gods do everything with graceful ease), lifting up the tiny earth goddess in his arms high above the swirling waters, while below all of nature (fish, sea serpents and nagas) come to witness this cataclysmic moment in the history of the universe.
To get to Sanchi the best way is to stay at Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. From here a number of interesting day trips can be made. Bhimbetka is a beautiful site with natural caves and rocky hillsides where you can visit some of the oldest human habitations of the Indian subcontinent. These huge rock caves have paintings made by Stone Age communities some ten thousands years ago. Another day trip from Bhopal can be to Bhojpur, situated across a small stream amidst the rocky plains, which has an amazing (unfinished) eleventh century Shiva temple. Through the high door way can be seen the massive form of the linga on a platform that is over 8 meters high.
• How to get there
Bhopal is linked by air, rail and road to every major town in northern and western India. There several museums (like Kala Bhavan) that can be visited and a stay of two to three days at Bhopal would be necessary to visit Sanchi (70 kilometers away), Udaigiri, Bhimbetka, and other places of interest.